Category Archives: UK

The BBC Television Shakespeare: As You Like It (1978)

Director: Basil Coleman

This is kind of where this Shakespeare series began, in that Cedric Messina had been using Glamis Castle and environs for another production and decided it would be a good setting for a version of As You Like It, whereupon he later had the further idea of doing the whole canon (this would be one of only two of the plays to be done on location). I gather this is one of Big Bill’s best-known plays but I’ve never actually read it nor seen any other versions of it, and didn’t even know what it was about, so I was really going in cold…

I was interested to find the story basically being a political intrigue at first; our hero is the son of a deceased duke who’s been dispossessed of his dues by his older brother, and there’s another duke usurping his brother and driving him into exile. This confused me terribly at first, cos this is one of Bill’s comedies (I at least knew that little about it) rather than his tragedies and yet the way it begins I felt it could almost be read as the latter at times during the first hour or so; I felt it wasn’t really until the action moved to the Forest of Arden that it really definitively settled on being a comedy. Found it quite off-putting, to be honest, and I never really engaged with it as much I would’ve liked.

Helen Mirren is our heroine, Rosalind, and is much the best thing about this production; Rosalind is a solid heroine who she makes the most of, and obviously the gender shenanigans she gets to engage in will be a big drawcard for modern audiences (even if I didn’t find them that convincing). I don’t recall anyone else in the cast making a comparable impression (though if, like me, you enjoy playing “spot the actor who was also in Doctor Who at some point” when watching things like this, then this episode offers some rich pickings) other than Richard Pasco, and that not in a good way, really. Jaques is apparently considered one of Shakespeare’s juiciest parts, he has the famous “all the world’s a stage” speech and is meant as a sort of cynical voice to undercut the otherwise lightness of the play, but Pasco (who we’ll see again next time in Julius Caesar) plays him as a kind of tedious brown note of much less interest than the characters seem to think he is. (Well, most of them; Orlando does get to say to him at one point “I do desire we may be better strangers” which is my favourite line in the thing.)

As for the location shooting, at the time it was considered it actually kind of overwhelmed the story and the actors but I liked it; it looks as good as I supposed it could’ve done being shot on video rather than film in 1978—even if it’s kind of shot in studio style, multicamera long takes and so forth—and it probably wouldn’t have looked any better had it been done in studio without going to a lot of expense. Unless they went for something really stylised and artificial, and the BBC weren’t quite ready to go there just yet. I can’t say I greatly liked this production, but it has its points of interest, and I suspect it’ll benefit from a rewatch where I know what to expect next time round…

Our Mutual Friend (1958-59)

Director: Eric Tayler

As well as the BBC Shakespeare, I’ve got a stack of Charles Dickens adaptations from the BBC to make my way through from the 50s to the 90s. No, I can’t believe the ones from the 50s still exist either; let’s face it , if the BBC made it before they ended their wiping policy in 1978 and it still exists, it probably does so by accident. Somehow, though, the 1958/59 production of Our Mutual Friend has come down through the ages and landed on DVD via Simply Home Entertainment (along with five other b/w BBC productions I’ll get to in due course), and that was my most recent viewing.

Now I did say before I watched pretty much bugger all last year, but I actually did watch a bit of this, the first three episodes to be precise, and I found myself not quite engaging with it. Not really in the mood for it then. Anyway, I resolved that I would make another attempt on it, and at least start by rewatching those three episodes. So I did, and having done so proceeded to the next three. Brief pause to do a bit of other business and wonder if I should leave it at that and come back for the second half later. Then I decided fuck it, let’s watch the whole thing. So I did, and finally went to bed that night a bit before 4am… which is late even by my fucking terrible standards, but clearly I was in the mood for it at last. Great stuff.

This was live TV back in the day, too, and I’m fascinated by the BBC’s live work, more so than I am by commercial TV where they could pause for breath in the ad break; the BBC didn’t have that luxury—all they really had was the occasional prefilmed bit that couldn’t be done in studio—so I’m fascinated to see how they arranged material to make it possible. Interesting to see how relatively few prefilmed segments Eric Tayler used here (unless I missed some), though that may have been a good thing given the filmed bits seemed to be most post-synchronised and quite poorly at that… yikes.

The other thing you look for, of course, is fluffs, and I spotted only a handful of those… only one that was egregious enough to actually be called a line fluff, and even that could’ve been written off as the character misreading a letter they’d been given. Otherwise, the cast manages with aplomb, and the more grating issues are technical ones, particularly the use of photographic flats for background scenery. They’re kind of screamingly obvious, particularly in Mrs Higden’s death scene where the point where the “rural” scenery and the studio floor meet and the join is quite badly covered up… yikes again.

Wasn’t familiar with most of the cast, our hero being played by Paul Daneman who was Richard III in Age of Kings (should rewatch that for review), the heroine by Rachel Roberts (later a Hollywood tragedy), and the other “hero” by David McCallum, who had yet to become known as, well, anything, never mind Ilya Kuryakin (let alone Ducky from NCIS). Credited as “courtesy of the Rank Organisation”, though, who evidently thought he was important enough to demand that notice.

Not familiar with the book either (the only Dickens I’ve actually read is the Xmas books), which was his last finished novel (Edwin Drood’s tale having ended ahead of schedule, as it were) and which seems to have puzzled critics and readers in its time who seem to have thought there was too much going on even for Dickens… and this, it must be said, is certainly a feeling I got from this TV version; there’s a LOT going on and you could probably safely ditch the subplot with the Lammles at least (I was never a hundred percent sure what was going on with them). I imagine the original audience of the show had some work to do keeping track of things, cos the show is noticeably light on recapping what happened in previous episodes. I also gather the book handles its plot somewhat differently, in that the revelation that John Rokesmith is actually the putative murder victim and dispossessed heir John Harmon is only made very late in the book. This was a point the TV version couldn’t overcome, so it frankly doesn’t try. Wonder if it’s as obvious in the book as it necessarily is on the show.

Anyway, some reservations aside, I liked this a lot. As I said, I was clearly the mood for six hours of vintage live BBC classic adaptation last night… So that leaves us with the rest of the Simply HE releases, those being Bleak House from 1959, Barnaby Rudge from 1960, Oliver Twist from 1962, Great Expectations from 1967 and Dombey and Son from 1969. And then there’s the rest of the Dickens stuff I’ve got from following decades! Lots more viewing ahead, eh…

The BBC Television Shakespeare: Richard II (1978)

Director: David Giles

I never did understand what the rationale was for the order in which the BBC tackled Big Bill’s plays in this series, so we go from one of his best-known tragedies to, well, one of his probably less-well known works (this is one of those for which there’s never been a cinema version). Richard II covers a fairly narrow period in its title character’s life, meaning it missed out a lot of stuff like the Peasants’ Revolt to basically focus on his downfall; we see him as a somewhat variable power, exiling people and seizing their assets to fight a war in Ireland and then basically crumbling when he gets home from that and finds Henry Bolingbroke’s come home from exile a few years ahead of schedule.

There’s apparently long been speculation about the historical Richard’s mental state, and Derek Jacobi’s portrayal arguably plays up to that, and, for me at least, ventures at times over the edge into ham. I think I considerably preferred Ben Whishaw’s version in The Hollow Crown. Performance-wise, I liked Charles Gray (who we’ll see again shortly as Julius Caesar) as the Duke of York and Jon Finch as Bolingbroke (remember him as Macbeth in Polanski’s film? He had form playing kings who’d got there by dubious means) a lot better here. Notable too in the cast is Boba Fett, the recently departed Jeremy Bulloch as Henry Percy, and, well, this was not his finest hour… initially I thought it was the bloke who played Prince Harry in the original Blackadder, and once I had that in my head I couldn’t take him seriously. Not sorry that he was recast for the rest of the Henriad…

Regarding which, it’s a bit odd that this was produced separate from the rest of the Henry IV/V/VI plays, and I think the BBC recognised that themselves cos they repeated it a year later ahead of Henry IV. I’m not sure how well it works by itself, I think mostly it serves to lay the background for the rest of the sequence. Overall not a bad job, kind of classically “70s BBC”, albeit somewhat less vigorous than R&J last week.

The BBC Television Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (1978)

Director: Alvin Rakoff

So, through the course of 2021, I’m going to attempt a full viewing of the 1970s/80s BBC Shakespeare in an effort to get back into, you know, actually watching things that aren’t Youtube videos (my non-YT film viewing in 2020 amounted to precisely one short film—young mister Elena’s Audio Guide, great—and, I think, two full TV series—Firefly and An Age of Kings, the BBC’s earlier Bardtacular). My TV backlog is threatening to get as out of hand as the infamous never-ending film backlog, so it’s time I started digging in. To which end I’m starting on the BBC Shakespeare, and will try to get through at least one episode a week of that.

We begin accordingly with Romeo and Juliet, which struck me as a pretty satisfying inauguration of the series. I know the earlier productions helmed by Cedric Messina have a bit of a reputation for stodge, but this worked pretty well for me. The Verona street set is impressively large and Rakoff gets a lot of value out of it with some reasonably mobile and active camerawork, particularly during the fight scene between Tybalt (Alan Rickman making his screen debut, already radiating that bass-baritone menace despite an unfortunate head of hair I hope was a wig) and Mercutio then Romeo. The latter is played by Patrick Ryecroft, who I think does pretty well… don’t know if I was as convinced by Rebecca Saire in the other title role, though she is notable for having been the same age as Juliet (who’s usually played by older teens or 20-somethings) and for having sniped a bit at it before broadcast cos she seemed to think Juliet should be a bit more sexy, whereupon the BBC panicked and cancelled all her other promo duties… On the whole, I liked it (surprisingly bloody stuff) though it does tail off some in the second half, R & J’s emo kid business after that sword fight really isn’t as interesting, but I suspect that’s down to Shakespeare himself rather than Rakoff’s direction.

Life of Brian (1979)

Director: Terry Jones

This film contains one of the most outstanding silences in any film (well, any sound film, obviously) I’ve ever seen, i.e. the bit where Brian shouts “NOW FUCK OFF!” at his suddenly acquired mass of followers, and they pause before, about eight seconds later, John Cleese’s disciple asks him how they should fuck off. It’s one of the most beautifully timed jokes in a film that swarms with them; watching it again tonight for the first time in several years (the first film I’ve watched in months, obviously, except for repeats of Flash Gordon and Heavy Metal which obviously didn’t need to be reviewed again here) was a great reminder of just how thick and fast the comedy comes, and how absurd baffling the controversy the film generated back in the day (still does? Apparently the town of Bournemouth only lifted their local ban on the film as recently as 2015, and even in this country it actually got upgraded from an M rating—which is the one my DVD copy bears—to an MA for its blu-ray reissue. Unless that was on account of the bonus features?) was. Even allowing for changes in attitudes over time, it seems bizarre that people could seriously accuse it of blasphemy; it clearly doesn’t have a go at that Jesus fellow in any way, the one scene in which Jesus appears—i.e. the Sermon on the Mount—plays him straight and the humour comes from the crowd who mishear what he says. And that’s the real root of the film’s satire; it’s not taking the piss out of Jesus, it’s taking the piss out of his followers, as witness the speed with which Brian’s disciples not only attach themselves to him for no good reason, then become divided as to whether the gourd or the shoe (and indeed whether it’s a shoe or a sandal) is his true sign, and finally not only misunderstand but actively ignore what he actually says… Come to think of it, maybe that’s really why people took such offence to Life of Brian back then, cos they recognised it was about themselves rather than their Lord…

As a final thought, how good is Graham Chapman as Brian? I only discovered tonight John Cleese actually wanted the role, and had to be talked out of it with difficulty by the other Pythons. What a piece of potentially terrible miscasting that could’ve been; considering Cleese’s general Python persona and the other parts he plays in the film, I just can’t imagine him working as Brian. Chapman was so determined not to fuck it up that he overcame the alcoholism that had plagued him for years, and you can see that commitment in his performance. I mean, all the Pythons are good in their many and varied parts, but it’s Chapman’s film, really. Absolutely top stuff.

Vampire Circus (1972)

Director: Robert Young

And we need a bit of Hammer for this month, too, so why not go with one that’s been on the to-do list for a while. This is, obviously, latter-day Hammer, and I gather it’s generally regarded as one of the better such films these days—even Sinclair McKay is quite kind to it in his book on Hammer—although at the time it seems to have been comparatively unloved. Again we have Hammer somewhat stuck in its fading gothic mode, but at least this time they had some new people on board to write produce and direct it, and at least it wasn’t just another Dracula sequel (though there’d be one of those that same year, and the next). It’s a film of kind of limited resources, whose production was kind of hampered by Young’s determination to take his time with it and make it as good as possible; this was the height of presumption at Hammer, and in the end some key scenes never got shot. For the most part, though, I don’t think the film actually suffers too much. Our story is set in some Mitteleuropa village suffering a plague which the townsfolk ascribe to a curse laid on them by a vampire killed nearby some years earlier; somehow, despite roadblocks being place, the titular circus comes to the village and, you know, things don’t get any better from there, cos the circus people are there to fulfil the vampire’s curse and restore him to life. Or unlife, whatever. Kind of bold in some ways (opening with a child as the first victim, and having two more later, gives it a decidedly unpleasant edge) and problematic in various others (the animal attack scene is just terribly done, and there are slips in continuity and logic even I noticed), but generally it’s pretty solid and markedly better than most of the other 70s Hammers I’ve seen.

The Meaning of Life (1983)

Director(s): Terry Jones [& Terry Gilliam]

This happened to be on TV tonight, so, despite it having always been my least favourite of the Python films I watched it. And it’s still my least favourite Python film, nothing’s changed on rewatching, except that where I previously thought the “supporting feature”—Gilliam’s Crimson Permanent Assurance—was the best thing about the film, I kind of rediscovered tonight just how much better it is than the rest of the film. Conceptually ingenious and screamingly funny in a way the rest of Meaning of Life isn’t. The “feature presentation” itself is watchable (well, maybe not the Mr Creosote business), and bits of it are kind of tremendous (particularly some of Eric Idle’s songs), but… I don’t know. Certainly it was something of a step back from the previous two films, back to the sketch-based structure of the TV series and away from the continuous narrative of Holy Grail and Life of Brian (which they very rarely attempted on TV)… but it doesn’t work the same here, part of which is that the film doesn’t really use Gilliam’s animation skills like the TV series did, and part of it is that most of these sketches wouldn’t have been allowed to crap on at this length on TV. And, of course, part of that is because most of this wouldn’t have been allowed on TV at all… yet the Python team’s avowed delight at not being restricted by television constraints somehow didn’t really transfer into the sort of thing it could’ve been, there’s something calculated and sniggering and a bit juvenile about the offensiveness on show that stops it from being as really dark as they seemed to think it was. Still, like I said, bits of it are good—even if it can’t quite live up to its opening, some of the earlier scenes are fun—and it did remind me that being chased off the top of a cliff to one’s death by a horde of attractive women wearing nothing but roller derby helmets and pads isn’t exactly the worst way you could check out from this vale of tears…

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

I’m filing this under both documentary and drama because I’m not really sure how else to do so. “Dramatised documentary” is probably the best description for it, but that opens up a range of questions that the film invites us to ask pretty much from the get go. Primarily, and most obviously, how much of the film actually IS “documentary”? To what extent is it actually a drama posing as documentary? How far is a documentary still a “documentary” if parts of it at least are staged in some way (and can documentary even avoid at least some degree of contrivance)? That’s a question Werner Herzog’s documentary career has kind of been built on, and we’ve been asking it at least since Nanook of the North, and it hangs over this film… Anyway, our subject is one Nicholas Edward Cave, you may know those bands he’s fronted over the last four decades; I’m admittedly not a mega-fan of Nick—I know, I’m a bad goth—and I wasn’t particularly enamoured of Push the Sky Away, the album he and the Bad Seeds are working on in the course of this film (though the songs sound better in the film somehow than I remember them doing on record). That said, Forsyth and Pollard’s handling of their subject is interesting whatever you make of Nick himself; much of the film is in the form of conversations between him and various people—a psychotherapist, actor Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, former Seed Blixa Bargeld (who’s… filled out a bit since he was in the band), current Seed Warren Ellis, and a group of archivists—which sounds like death but our directors manage to make it anything but, and of course that whole issue of “real vs staged” helps maintain interest (e.g. there’s photographic evidence of Tracy Pew beating up some German guy pissing on him on-stage, but what about the equally marvellous story of Nick’s teenage transvestism? Did that really happen?). Cave says a couple of things about living for performance and the desire to transform himself into something he wasn’t, and those two statements kind of underpin the whole film and leave us to question the “Nick Cave” we see throughout it; if there’s no definite answer by the end, the journey is still a fun one. Plus Warren Ellis plays a Microkorg at several points, and that always wins me over to an artist…

Dredd (2012)

Director: Pete Travis

So the new Mad Max trailer dropped, and it got me to thinking that, well, isn’t post-nuclear apocalyptic stuff of this kind a bit… I don’t know, old hat? I don’t know when Max’s original adventures were meant to take place, but I suspect we’re now living past that time anyway, plus full-scale nuclear holocaust just doesn’t seem to, you know, intrigue people the way it did in the 80s… And yet here’s Dredd, on SBS2 tonight, and I never thought until the credits rolled about it being, you know, out of time in its own way. I don’t know. Anyway, I grew up on 2000AD, the legendary home of the original Judge Dredd strip which was pretty much always the star feature of that comic… it took me an awfully long time to realise just how, well, fascist its basic premise is; post-nuclear war, what’s left of humanity gathers into Mega-Cities where the Judges are the ultimate force of law, instant judge jury and executioner. Still, when you’re eight years old, you don’t think about that sort of thing, you’re more interested in the futuristic flash… the film at least makes few bones about the dystopian side of its story; it’s a brutally quick set-up to a brutally simple story (Dredd and rookie judge Anderson get trapped in a locked-down city block run by drug kingpin—queenpin?—Ma-Ma, and have to defend themselves with limited weaponry against, oh, hundreds of her gang members and associates, including four of their fellow Judges on the take from Ma-Ma), delivered with, well, brutality. The thing that impressed me most about Dredd was how it pulled off the difficult feat that Judge Dredd failed to do 20 years ago, i.e. delivering a film that would keep long-term Dreddheads happy (even though I haven’t read 2000AD since, what, 1993 or something, I’m still one of those long-termers) without alienating the non-fans, always a difficult deal but Dredd actually pulls it off; it’s recognisable as a “Judge Dredd story” and a more broadly appealing SF actioner. The other thing that impressed me was, of course, the aforementioned brutality; you get the feeling the people involved were determined to revel as much as possible in the fact they could go way beyond the limits of a comic aimed at younger readers. There’s some damned nasty stuff—particular the scene of Anderson psychically interrogating Kay—which I don’t suppose 2000AD could go near even these days when I presume things are a bit looser than they were when I used to read it… On the whole, ruthlessly efficient stuff that goes down easily if you’re into that sort of thing, and that barely gives you time to wonder how the Judges actually let Ma-Ma and her gang take over that city block without stopping her much earlier…

Alternative 3 (1977)

Director: Christopher Miles

It’s fascinating how people get taken in by hoaxes, particularly obvious ones, and even more particularly admitted ones. Nearly four decades after the fact, for example, people are still falling for Alternative 3; a Google search demonstrates as much in seconds. Rewatching it tonight myself, I find myself asking a number of questions about the thing, especially this: just how were people expected to receive it in 1977? I mean, I know how they did—either by not sticking around for the credits containing the actors’ names and panicking about it being real, or by reading the credits and berating ITV for perpetrating this irresponsible nightmare vision—but how were they meant to? The film’s own avowed copyright date is “April 1st 1977”, and I suspect it might’ve been more of a dead giveaway had it actually aired on that date… which it didn’t, since Anglia (the studio behind it) couldn’t actually get a slot for it on ITV that day and it actually aired nearly three months later. But would it have seemed more obviously fake or not?

For that matter, why am I even asking how “obvious” the fakery is? Is it only “obvious” because I already know it’s a hoax? Do the people in it only seem like they’re acting because I know they’re actors? If someone just sat me down with it and said “here, watch this” and I’d never heard of A3 before, how would it strike me? Compare it to Propaganda, which I didn’t know was a hoax when I watched it but I still felt there was something weird and wrong about it. Similarly, back in the early 90s I remember a program called The Einstein Code, which revolved around Einstein having developed a sort of “bad luck bomb”, it just got more and more preposterous, I got more and more “what the fuck is this shit”… and then I saw the “April Fools Production” credit at the end and I howled.

And this is why I wonder how people were supposed to respond to Alternative 3. Was it supposed to seem, you know, “wrong” to them in the way Propaganda and The Einstein Code did; were people supposed to look at this bizarre story of human colonies on the Moon and on Mars in the event of some terminal environmental catastrophe here on Earth and think “hang on, this doesn’t sound right” and wonder why some of the people in the film looked oddly like people they might’ve seen in other films of TV shows… cos what makes me ask is, in fact, the framework in which it’s presented, i.e. as an episode in a series called Science Report. Did such a series actually exist? I can’t actually find any reference to it online except in relation to A3; IMDB only lists A3 itself as an individual “TV movie” and has no entry for a series called Science Report that I can find. SO… if this series didn’t exist, were people surprised to see it on TV? If it did, were people surprised to find it had a bunch of reporters and other staff they wouldn’t have seen before? Did A3 seem, you know, “unlike” the other episodes? How “acted” does it really seem to other people? These are things I don’t know, and that’s part of what makes A3 so hard to actually appraise… the other part being, of course, that the story behind the hoax is the story, the hoaxed thing itself is in some ways just a prop…